Monday, April 02, 2007

Britten's War Requiem

Written to mark the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral in the 1952, Benjamin Britten's War Requiem is one of the great choral masterpieces of the twentieth century.
Interspersed with the texts of the traditional Requiem Mass are war poems by Wilfred Owen. The forces used are a large choir and orchestra with soprano soloist for the Mass texts (occasionally joined by an off-stage boys' chorus) with a chamber orchestra accompanying tenor and baritone in the settings of the war poems.
The settings of the Mass texts tend towards the dramatic and owe much to Verdi's setting. That is not to say that Britten's version is a copy or even, properly speaking, derivative; more that he had learned the most important lesson from his great Italian predecessor: that the words of the Requiem provide huge scope for dramatic and musical effects.
The settings of the war poems are more conventionally Britten's style - beautiful word setting and proper vocal lines.
I select just two of the many moments of genius in this work. First the Offertorium. Picking up on the reference to 'Abraham and his seed' in the Latin text, Britten then takes us to Owen's poem "So Abram rose" with its horrible conclusion 'But the old man ... slew his son - and half the seed of Europe, one by one'. The boys then come in with the verse from the Offertory 'sacrifices and prayer and praise we offer thee O Lord' as the men soloists (slightly off the beat from each other) repeat again and again the shocking last words of the poem.
Secondly the ending. After a dramatic "Libera me" from chorus and soprano, the tenor and baritone sing as two men who meet in the afterlife: 'I am the enemy you killed, my friend'. And as the boys sing "In Paradisum" the two men sing 'let us sleep' before the chorus bring the whole work to and end with the final hushed "Requiescant in pace. Amen".
At the centre of Saturday's performance at The Sage was the Huddersfield Choral Society, living up to their high reputation, and impressing particularly in their wonderful whispered, yet still properly vocalised singing of the opening and closing of the work.
The boys chorus (from Croydon) were placed right at the back of the highest level of the hall so where I was sitting (centre stalls) provided just the right shock of ethereal sound from an unexpected direction.
Janice Watson was the soprano soloist, set high on the top level above the chorus and vocally soaring over them.
The two men were Paul Nilon and Grant Doyle, both excellent but the latter particularly impressive not just vocally but dramatically. If I were the Intendant of an opera house I would be asking Mr Doyle when he would like to do his first Billy Budd...
The 'big' orchestra was the Orchestra of Opera North and the chamber orchestra members of the Northern Sinfonia. Sometimes the big orchestra and the chamber orchestra have their own conductors but this performance was all under the direction of Takuo Yuosa - and what a brilliant job he did.


Anonymous Maura said...

You write very well.

1:52 am  

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